Dr. van de Mortel is Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Ms. Bird is Lecturer (Teaching & Learning), Teaching & Learning Centre, Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia.
The authors have no financial or proprietary interest in the materials presented herein.
Address correspondence to Thea F. van de Mortel, PhD, RN, Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore, 2480 NSW, Australia; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The word curriculum is based on a Latin word that means track or racecourse and, at its most basic interpretation, refers to a course of study (Prideaux, 2003). Wider interpretations include the students’ learning experience and the interactive process of teaching and learning (Fraser & Bosanquet, 2006). What was planned for the students by the curriculum designers, what is delivered by the teachers, and what is experienced by the students are not always congruent (Prideaux, 2003).
Throughout this article, a subject is referred to as a unit, a program of units leading to the award of a degree is called a course, the unit assessor is the academic in charge of a unit, and curriculum is a combination of “pedagogy...the student experience, the assessment process and the student’s learning” (Barnett & Coate, 2005, p. 131). The term graduate attributes refers to a combination of disciplinary knowledge and competencies, along with the more generic key skills and characteristics that we aim to develop in graduates, such as information literacy and life-long learning skills.
The Problem: Curriculum Drift
The manner in which Australian universities manage their curricula creates particular risks. Universities have rigorous internal approval processes for new courses, typically requiring thorough course reviews every 5 years. Professional courses, such as nursing, must also be accredited by industry bodies. The curriculum designed in advance is closely scrutinized by many stakeholders (Barnett & Coate, 2005). However, in the years between initial accreditation and formal review cycles, the risk of curriculum drift (a widening gap between the accredited curriculum and the taught curriculum) is real when the changes that unit assessors make to their units as they teach them are not monitored. In effect, no one is watching.
Donald (1997) identified one possible reason: that the “curriculum is protected by a close association with academic freedom” (p. 37). Typically, unit assessors in the higher education sector have a great deal of autonomy in the development and delivery of their units, teach their units in isolation from other units in the course (Wolf, 2007), and tinker with their units over time. What might initially have been a well-designed and well-integrated course, with careful scaffolding across the course and the purposeful embedding of graduate attributes, can become a set of separate units. Students are left to “make sense of the whole (if at all) from a broad set of often fragmented and unconnected individual [unit] learning experiences” (Hubball & Gold, 2007, p. 8).
Because failure of the curriculum to provide graduates with the required attributes can compromise patient safety and graduates with poor professional standards may be penalized, a whole-of-course approach to the development of the required graduate attributes must be maintained over the curriculum accreditation cycle.
Enter Quality Assurance and Enhancement
There is a growing expectation that universities take responsibility for their courses, and a strong emphasis on assessment of quality in relation to educational processes (Dynan & Clifford, 2001). To ensure a quality learning experience, Hubball and Gold (2007) suggested that “critical examinations of an undergraduate curriculum should not be relegated to five-year summative data-gathering frenzies for institutional or accreditation reviews. Rather, undergraduate curricula should be considered scholarly, formative, and developmental review processes for all stakeholders in the program learning community” (p. 11).
A process of continuous curriculum review (Hill, 2007; Smith, Herbert, Robinson, & Watt, 2001; Wolf, 2007) avoids the 5-year frenzy, allowing continuous improvement of the curriculum while ensuring that gaps between the accredited and enacted curriculum are minimized. Locating that quality assurance and enhancement process within academic departments is beneficial for two reasons: because the systems that enhance or constrain change operate at this level (Knight, 2006) and because the ownership of change by staff can facilitate change (Radloff, 2004).
Enter Graduate Attributes and Curriculum Mapping
The graduate attribute movement has created a body of literature about curriculum, curriculum mapping, and review (Barrie, 2003; Chanock, 2003; Skillen, Trivett, Merten, & Percy, 1999). Graduate attributes provide a framework for curriculum design, and some approaches to the embedding of graduate attributes can offer additional benefits to academics and their curricula. For example, James, Lefoe, and Hadi (2004) showcased sample teaching strategies on a Web site and encouraged staff discussion on these strategies, resulting in a more holistic approach to teaching and learning. Bath, Smith, Stein, and Swann (2004) also described an action-learning project to improve the link between the accredited curriculum and the taught curriculum. However, scant reference exists in the literature to the processes of continuous improvement and quality enhancement that need to follow the initial mapping and embedding of graduate attributes. The risks of curriculum drift reemerge in this particular context.
Our Course and Review Process
The Bachelor of Nursing (BN) course at Southern Cross University was newly implemented in 2006. On advice from the Teaching & Learning (T&L) Centre, we initiated a process of continuous curriculum review to ensure that graduates completed their degrees with those attributes articulated in the course accreditation document to improve the learning experience and to create a collegial approach to the curriculum that developed a whole-of-course perspective.
The review process contains two interlinked cycles of review: a review of units prior to and after delivery. In each instance, teaching teams of first-year units, second-year units, and third-year units meet with their course coordinator, and representatives from the T&L Centre, the Learning Assistance Department, and the library. The course coordinators are charged with monitoring the quality of unit delivery and the integrity of the course.
The T&L Centre representative brings experience in curriculum and educational design. The Learning Assistance representative offers diagnostic skills testing and structured learning sessions that unit assessors can build into their unit structure (e.g., to improve academic writing and numeracy skills). Because Learning Assistance representatives help students with assignment writing, they also advise unit assessors on student assessment. The librarian advises on the availability of learning materials and the development of information literacy skills.
Prior to the start of semester, unit assessors circulate their curriculum documents, assessment items, and marking criteria to other members in their group to seek feedback. The group then meets to discuss the issues outlined in the Table.
Table: Issues Discussed During the Curriculum Review Process
Following unit delivery, a retrospective review of each unit is conducted with the same participants. The student feedback is reviewed, and the teaching team provides feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of the unit. Questions include what worked, what did not work, and how could it be improved? Recommendations are made by the group to resolve any problems that are raised.
This cycle of continuous curriculum review is repeated on a semester basis. The reviews are documented to provide a record for staff regarding the agreed modifications, as well as record of quality assurance activities in the event of an audit.
For Students. At Southern Cross University, each unit is evaluated by students via an anonymous voluntary online survey at the end of semester (four surveys per semester for a full-time student). Average student satisfaction scores for the first-year units in the BN program have improved from 3.89 in 2006 to 3.92 in 2007 to 4.00 in 2008 on a 5-point scale, whereas the average score across the university remained unchanged at 3.88. These improvements provide preliminary evidence that the curriculum review process is increasing student satisfaction in the BN program. The benefits for students should also go beyond improvements in student satisfaction and include improved achievement of the intended course outcomes. This is yet to be formally evaluated.
The review process had some real benefits for staff, including:
- Professional development in curriculum, teaching, and assessment. The sharing of teaching experiences was particularly useful for inexperienced staff. The process also encouraged reflective practice and indicated the value placed on quality teaching. This is the type of nonformal, situated, practice-based learning that Knight (2006) argued was the main way that professionals learn.
- Agency and ownership of the whole course. The opportunity to discuss the whole course has broadened the perspective of academics from a “my unit” perspective to a sense of collective responsibility for the whole course. As a result, several curriculum mapping projects have been instigated and conducted by staff. One group has mapped the development of problem-based learning skills, another has mapped the development of numeracy skills, and another has mapped the development of academic writing and information literacy skills across the curriculum.
- Development of leadership capacity. Good academic leadership improves student learning (Gibbs, 2006; Prosser & Trigwell, 1997). The course coordinator “because of a lack of formal authority over others, must create interdependence with their team and share power to invoke change” (Ladyshewsky & Jones, 2007, p. 3). This project enabled the course coordinator to develop team building, mentoring, and curriculum management skills and to build leadership capacity among the teaching staff, as evidenced by the further investigations of subthemes in the curriculum, described previously. In this way, everyone becomes a leader and has a stake in the quality of the overall curriculum, not just their particular unit.
- Peer review of student assessment has been built into the department culture, resulting in an improvement in the quality of those items.
- Facilitation of reporting curriculum changes to the accrediting board.
- Provision of data to inform the allocation of resources to facilitate change (e.g., the review process highlighted that assessments to develop academic writing skills were limited in one semester) and allocation of extra marking funding led to the introduction of more assessment tasks to develop those skills.
For the University. The curriculum review process informed the development of the university’s new course review process. The biannual cycle of recorded curriculum review creates a portfolio of course changes and related data, such as student satisfaction, attrition, and grade distribution, that builds between formal course reviews.
Continuous curriculum review provides a data-informed process for quality improvement of the curriculum, ensuring that issues with delivery affecting the student experience are rapidly identified and addressed. It contains curriculum drift while encouraging positive changes to the curriculum, providing opportunities for team building and the development of leadership skills and a whole-of-course perspective on the curriculum. It also offers new staff professional development using the shared wisdom of experienced unit assessors and provides a portfolio of evidence for formal course reviews.
- Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Berkshire, England: SRHE and Open University Press.
- Barrie, S.C. (2003, September). Using conceptions of graduate attributes for research-led systematic curriculum reform. Paper presented at the 11th Improving Students’ Learning, Symposium. , Hinckley, United Kingdom. .
- Bath, D., Smith, C., Stein, S. & Swann, R. (2004). Beyond mapping and embedding graduate attributes: Bringing together quality assurance and action learning to create a validated and living curriculum. Higher Education Research & Development, 23, 313–328. doi:10.1080/0729436042000235427 [CrossRef]
- Chanock, K. (2003, July). Graduate attributes: The challenges for curricula in arts degrees. Paper presented at the 7th Pacific Rim, First Year in Higher Education Conference. , Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. .
- Donald, J. (1997). Improving the environment for learning: Academic leaders talk about what works. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Dynan, M.B. & Clifford, R.J. (2001). Eight years on: Implementation of quality management in an Australian university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26, 503–515. doi:10.1080/02602930120082069 [CrossRef]
- Fraser, S.P. & Bosanquet, A.M. (2006). ‘The curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it?’Studies in Higher Education, 31, 269–284. doi:10.1080/03075070600680521 [CrossRef]
- Gibbs, G. (2006). Departmental leadership for quality teaching: An international comparative study. Retrieved from http://www.learning.ox.ac.uk/oli.php?page=72
- Hill, A. (2007). Continuous curriculum assessment and improvement: A case study. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2007 (112), 33–45. doi:10.1002/tl.296 [CrossRef]
- Hubball, H. & Gold, N. (2007). The scholarship of curriculum practice and undergraduate program reform: Integrating theory into practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2007 (112), 5–14. doi:10.1002/tl.293 [CrossRef]
- James, B., Lefoe, G. & Hadi, M. (2004). Working ‘through’ graduate attributes: A bottom-up approach. In Sheehy, F. & Stauble, B. (Eds.), Transforming knowledge into wisdom: Holistic approaches to teaching and learning (pp. 174–184). Milperra, Australia. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.
- Knight, P. (2006). Quality enhancement and educational professional development. Quality in Higher Education, 12, 29–40. doi:10.1080/13538320600685123 [CrossRef]
- Ladyshewsky, R. & Jones, S. (2007). Academic leadership and the course coordinator: ‘King pin’ in the quality process. Paper presented at the Australian Universities Quality Forum. , Hobart, Tasmania. . Retrieved from www.auqa.edu.au/auqf/pastfora/2007/program/papers/e20.pdf
- Prideaux, D. (2003). ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: Curriculum design. BMJ, 326, 268–270. doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7383.268 [CrossRef]
- Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1997). Relations between perceptions of the teaching environment and approaches to teaching. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 25–35.
- Radloff, A. (2004). Decentralised approaches to education development: Supporting quality teaching and learning from within the faculty. In Fraser, K. (Ed.), Education development and leadership in higher education (pp. 72–87). London, UK: Routledge Falmer.
- Skillen, J., Trivett, N., Merten, M. & Percy, A. (1999, July). Integrating the instruction of generic and discipline specific skills into the curriculum: A case study. Paper presented at the Cornerstones: What Do We Value in Higher Education? Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Annual Conference. , Melbourne, Australia. .
- Smith, C., Herbert, D., Robinson, W. & Watt, K. (2001). Quality assurance through a continuous curriculum review (CCR) strategy: Reflections on a pilot project. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26, 489–502. doi:10.1080/02602930120082050 [CrossRef]
- Wolf, P. (2007). A model for facilitating curriculum development in higher education: A faculty-driven, data-informed, and educational developer-supported approach. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2007 (112), 15–20. doi:10.1002/tl.294 [CrossRef]
Issues Discussed During the Curriculum Review Process
Syllabus. The content of each unit is discussed, and duplications are removed.
Student assessment. Questions addressed in relation to student assessment include:
Is there an appropriate variety of assessment types to ensure that students have opportunities to gain the attributes mapped in the accredited curriculum?
Does the assessment item align with the graduate attributes and unit objectives, and is there a more authentic way of assessing this objective that will improve student learning?
Are the marking criteria clear, and is the weighting given to assessment items reasonable and consistent across units?
Is the number of assessment items in each unit reasonable, and is the timing of assessment tasks across units spread to avoid assessment log jams?
Are the assignment questions unambiguous, and is sufficient information given to allow students to successfully complete the assessment item?
Have students been given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to effectively complete the assessment task? For example, the unit assessor may schedule a diagnostic session to identify students with numeracy problems, followed by tutoring sessions and practice quizzes to build the students’ skills in this area, before the final drug calculation examination.
Learning materials are checked for currency and relevance.
Any issues relating to the delivery of the curriculum are discussed.
Processes for identifying and supporting at-risk students are discussed.